King Lifts Ban on Political Parties

Euphoric pro-democracy leaders take on sensitive task of negotiating future role of monarch. NEPAL

NEPAL'S surging pro-democracy movement has forced reforms from one of the world's oldest governing monarchies. After a violent two-month long agitation, King Birendra, considered a god by many Nepalis, gave in late Sunday to his opponents and pledged to lift a constitutional ban on political parties in the Himalayan kingdom.

Following the announcement, opposition leaders suspended protests in which scores of people died during the last week in confrontations with security forces. The king's turnabout, which was celebrated by huge crowds in the streets of Katmandu, came after day-long meetings with pro-democracy politicians, some of whom met the ruler for the first time.

The opposition alliance, which includes leftists, students, and members of the previously banned Nepalese Congress Party, wants to end the king's 30 years of absolute rule by dissolving the National Panchayat or parliament, setting up an interim government, and holding elections that would establish a multiparty democracy.

``This is a euphoric victory for the pro-democracy leaders,'' a Western diplomat here says. ``Now they will have to negotiate some touchy matters, including the future role of the king and his powerful political advisers in the new order.''

The dramatic concession came as Nepal reeled from mounting domestic turmoil fed in part by the wave of political change that has shaken or brought down authoritarian governments around the world.

The agitation exploded with new fury and frustration last weekend after the king dismissed his hard-line government, promised talks with his allied political opponents, and released opposition leaders.

When the opposition rejected the king's offer as inadequate, police fired Saturday on thousands of demonstrators marching on the Royal Palace in Katmandu. An indefinite curfew was imposed as trouble spread to other towns.

The opposition victory was marred by tragedy when six people celebrating the king's announcement were shot by police enforcing the curfew. Sunday night restrictions were lifted and the Army withdrew from Katmandu streets.

The political unrest has shattered Nepal, a tranquil Hindu country of 17 million people often idealized as a Himalayan Shangri-La but actually one of the world's poorest nations.

Until recently, widespread political turmoil was unheard of in Nepal, where traditionally people have been reluctant to speak against the United States-educated king who lives largely in isolation and is revered by many as a reincarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu.

The protests are aimed at ending the king's apolitical system of governing councils, or panchayats, which has been widely discredited because of election rigging and corruption, observers here say. The next elections to the National Panchayat are slated for 1991.

The nonpartisan system was established by King Mahendra, father of the present king, when he took power in 1960.

Nepal has been criticized for human-rights abuses by the US State Department, Western organizations such as Asia Watch, and most recently by the newly established Human Rights Organization of Nepal.

The political unrest is also rooted in the economic crisis triggered by a trade dispute with India, analysts here say. The economy of landlocked Nepal has long been dependent upon India for aid, special trade concessions, its east coast seaport of Calcutta, and employment for about 3 million Nepalis, including 100,000 Gurkhas in the Indian Army.

Last year, after a dispute over how to renegotiate lapsed trade and transit treaties, New Delhi closed 19 of 21 border crossings with the Himalayan kingdom.

Although trade friction was the reason given for the breakdown, New Delhi also was angry at Nepal's courtship of China, its giant northern neighbor and a long-time Indian rival. Especially galling to India was Nepal's purchase of Chinese small arms and antiaircraftguns after India's intervention in another South Asia nation, Sri Lanka.

Determined to wean itself from Indian cultural and economic dominance, Nepal fought back by banning the use of Indian currency and some goods and restricting the work rights of Indians in Nepal.

The trade dispute, however, has taken a toll on the tiny country which for a year has struggled with high prices, fuel rationing, and inadequate supplies of medicine and other goods. The disagreement has stymied industry, put people out of work, and stalled big foreign-aid projects.

Observers say the two countries were working toward a settlement when the political unrest erupted. Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh insisted he would not interfere in Nepalese politics. In some quarters, however, Nepalis blamed India for stirring up the trouble, especially since the visit of prominent Indian politicians to an opposition congress in January.

1950 - Revolt ousts oligarchical clan of prime ministers and restores monarchy.

1959 - Democratic Constitution paves way for election and government by Nepali Congress Party.

1960 - King suspends Constitution, jails government leaders, and bans political parties.

December 1980 - Constitutional changes call for direct election to nonpartisan National Assembly.

Feb. 19, 1990 - Pro-democracy rallies result in clashes between police and protesters.

April 6 - Nepalese Army and police open fire on pro-democracy demonstrators. April 8 - King decrees multiparty system, legalizes political parties.

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